MIND MELD: Rereading

Over at Mind Meld, John DeNardo asked (on behalf of Derryl Murphy), “What science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror books do [you] read and re-read again?”

There are lots of interesting answers from authors from Pamela Sargent to N. K. Jemisin. You should go check out the whole thing. Meanwhile, here’s a teaser in the form of my answer to the question:

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to answer this question a bit tangentially, by discussing my experience of rereading in general and then moving into the specific. Rereading is always interesting for me because of the way I was trained to read–namely, by my mother, who is a librarian, an avid reader, and someone who *hates* rereading.

To my mother, reading is accomplishing a task. It’s checking off a box on your list of life’s achievements. I have read that book–check.

Not that she doesn’t enjoy reading. She loves reading. But to her, rereading is pointless. You’ve already checked off that box, so what’s the point in revisiting?

So, then there’s me. I love rereading, but I always feel a little guilty about it. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure.

I tend to reread for one of three reasons:

I find the work extremely profound and revisiting it allows me to uncover new layers in the text. Not every work can tolerate this kind of rereading, but I love it when I find a text that is equally breathtaking–though usually breathtaking in a different way–on reread. I go to Octavia Butler’s work for experiences like this, particularly Lilith’s Brood and Parable of the Sower, although I admit it’s gotten harder to do this since she died. As a friend of mine says, it’s sad to live in a world where there will never be a new piece of work by Octavia Butler.

I find the work comforting and part of the reason I like rereading it is because it’s a familiar, cozy experience. I reread many of the Terry Pratchett books every year or so. I often do it when I’m sick or stressed out and I don’t have the mental resources to go exploring. I just want to be in a warm cocoon with Lions of Al Rassan or Doomsday Book or Wicked.

Nostalgia. I reread work because I want to evoke the feeling I had the first time I read it. This can be great–I really love Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun and Silver Metal Lover, for instance, although I think they were really something keyed into my experience of the world as an adolescent. Some children’s books still have that crackle of a world I saw as potentially magical–E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Roald Dahl’s Mathilda, The Forbidden Door by Merilee Heyer. Rereading for nostalgia can also be painful, though. In college, when I met someone who had written Pern fan fiction in high school, I thought to myself, hey, it would be fun to read those again. “It really won’t be,” she told me, “You’re going to be sad you did.” I didn’t believe her, but she was right and I was so very wrong.

Of course there’s a lot of overlap between these categories. I find Octavia Butler’s work very profound, but it also reminds me of all the times in all the previous years when I’ve read it before. Wicked is comforting, but also nostalgic of my adolescence–when I was sixteen, I painfully over-identified with Elphaba. Even though I see Biting the Sun through the eyes of my teenage self, I discover new layers when I reread it, too, especially as I read more feminist SF and gender theory and see the ways in which the book is part of an ongoing conversation.

I guess there’s also a fourth reason I reread–which is when I’m trying to figure out how an author achieves a particular effect, or do a structural analysis on a text because I hope it will help me discover something about my own writing. But while I often end up doing this as I reread, I don’t think it’s usually what’s on my mind when I go pick up the book. Instead I’ll think “You know what I want to reread? That book!” and then when I’m halfway through, realize that it’s because there was something in it that resonates with one of my own projects, or some way I’m thinking about writing, or even just a philosophical or emotional dilemma I’ve been contemplating.

I really love rereading–I find it inspirational, profound, comforting and nostalgic. But I have to admit, from time to time when I look at my shelves and see all the books I still haven’t managed to pick up for the first time, I start to worry about all those empty boxes that I still can’t check off.

–so what books do you like to reread?

This entry posted in literature. Bookmark the permalink. 

18 Responses to MIND MELD: Rereading

  1. 1
    Frowner says:

    I mostly lurk, but I can’t resist questions like this one.

    I reread some things because they both please and irritate me–M. John Harrison, the world’s finest misogynist and a great writer of landscape, for example. The tension pulls me back again and again.

    I reread Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home with varying degrees of obsession because it’s a book that repays patience, like so much of her finest work. It’s a book that seems very simple, even moralistic, but it’s like a great parable or a koan; you bring yourself to it and find new things every time.

    For many years I reread Le Guin’s Dispossessed, which was hugely politically influential for me (I’m an anarchist). Right now, I find myself irritated by the genius Shevek, the way he’s like so many disengaged, coddled, emotionally immature smart straight men. Maybe I’ll resolve that feeling and return to the book with a new interpretation.

    I reread The Left Hand of Darkness because I love the cold planet, and because of the sad, recollective voice of Genly Ai when he describes how the days on the ice, now irretrievably gone, were his happiest. And because Estraven describes how they determined to befriend the alien because of the sound of his name.

    I reread Iain Bank’s Culture books because they really upset me–I can’t see why people think they’re fun space epics, they’re all about colonialism and the cruelty of the Western powers.

  2. 2
    Alix56 says:

    While there aren’t many SF novels I choose to reread, I have read Alice in Wonderland many many times (upwards of 50+, I’d guess), and probably Pride and Prejudice maybe that many. I’ve always reread books, mostly because I’d read everything in our home by the time I was 10…so often the choice was reread or no read. No guilt here — I love rereading things!

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    Ask people who don’t understand re-reading a book how many times they’ve seen a given movie, and then ask what the difference is.

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:

    My mother hates rewatching movies, too!

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    Seriously. She keeps spreadsheets of what movies and books they’ve watched because a few years ago, more than once she accidentally picked up a book/watched a movie she’d read before, but didn’t remember it until the end, and then was annoyed that she’d ended up rereading/rewatching.

    I figure if you don’t remember the book well enough to know you’ve read it before then rereading it is effectively like reading it for the first time, but then again, I also don’t keep spreadsheets of what I’ve read and seen with literal ticky boxes. :D

  6. 6
    Jake Squid says:

    I figure if you don’t remember the book well enough to know you’ve read it before then rereading it is effectively like reading it for the first time…

    That’s how I do it. If I think a book is particularly good, it goes on the bookshelves. I know that I’ll forget most of the details within 10 years and enjoy the hell out of it again.

    Most of the fantasy and/or SF that I reread are things that I really liked for the writing. I re-read all of Blaylock over and over again because his style really hits a chord for me. I’ll re-read almost anything by Patricia McKillip because she transports you to another world quicker and better than anybody that I can think of. Her stuff is totally immersive for me.

    I have re-read Glen Cook’s Black Company series a lot of times. At this point, I only re-read the first 3 1/2 books in the series, I lose interest after they get to the south.

  7. 7
    Robert says:

    I love rereading Terry Pratchett books because the first time through I usually read them very very fast. Then on the still-fast rereads, usually within six months or so, I get more of the jokes, follow the plot better, appreciate the little stylistic intricacies he throws in. After a few years I enjoy rereading them slowly (with lots of time between rereads) – it feels like meeting an old friend again and having a nice conversation. Even though we don’t cover any new ground and spend most of the time reminiscing, it’s lovely and warm.

  8. 8
    Mandolin says:

    Oh, that’s a great way of putting it, Robert.

  9. 9
    nm says:

    I reread Le Guin pretty often; I cycle through most of her novels and her last 3 or so story collections probably every 3 or 4 years or so. There are other writers I reread, but far less regularly. I’ve gone back to Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster books recently, mostly since I hadn’t read them since back in the day and we’ll never get anything new from her. I was impressed enough all over again that I can see myself getting into cycling through Butler’s books on a longer cycle, maybe every 10 years or so. I now and then reread Peter S. Beagle and Patricia McKillip–I’m always a tiny bit afraid of getting too used to McKillip’s magic, though. It would be a shame for me to start finding it familiar, I think.

    For me there’s a piece of nostalgia involved in these rereadings, but a lot more rediscovery of style and ideas, and reflection on how my understanding of the characters and situations has changed over time — and I see the writing of things, the literary approach, with new eyes as well. Most of the other rereading I do is in other genres, and is also more sporadic. I’ll think: I want to read a book that has features X and Y; what fits the bill?

  10. 10
    vesta44 says:

    Every so often I will reread E E “Doc” Smith’s Lensman’s Series, and his Skylark series. I’ve read “Stranger In a Strange Land” and “I Will Fear No Evil” by Heinlein so many times that the glue holding the pages in the paperbacks isn’t holding anymore (probably at least 50 times each). I’ve reread the first 10 in Piers Anthony’s Xanth series 5 or 6 times (the puns draw me in). The Dragonriders series is another one I’ve read several times. I’ve read the Anita Blake books several times, and the Sookie Stackhouse ones at least twice. I’m working on my third reading of the Argeneau series by Lynsay Sands. I’ve read all the Black Stallion series several times (when I was a teenager and since then), and all of Albert Payson Terhune’s dog books several times. I’ve also read Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Little Men, Robinson Crusoe, and the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle several times.
    For me, rereading a book is like visiting an old friend and going over old times together. It’s one of the reasons I don’t get rid of my books, other than the ones I’ve given to my son ( a couple of thousand of them that I collected over 30 years), and since he has them, I can always go to his house and borrow them again if I want to read any of them again.

  11. 11
    Jake Squid says:

    The answers at the link are interesting. Many of the authors answering re-read Philip Dick and I totally get that. Heinlein, I don’t. There were also a number of books mentioned that were good reminders. The Louise Cooper series is some good dark fantasy, Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen is brilliant as is Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.

    The most surprising to me is Derryl Murphy naming The Stress of Her Regard. That’s probably my least favorite of Tim Powers in his non-first novel form. It is one that I have re-read, though. If I hadn’t done that, I’d never have liked it at all. It took me a while to figure it out. I find the choice especially surprising since Powers has written that story 8 times. It’s not that I have a problem with him writing the same story 8 times, they are all different enough from each other. It’s that I’m surprised that anybody’s favorite among those versions is The Stress of Her Regard.

  12. 12
    Elusis says:

    I have a terrible memory and can read a book or watch a film, then a couple of years later, have no memory of what’s actually in it at all. So I re-read all kinds of things because it’s like Groundhog Day for me. Or the little plastic castle…

  13. 13
    Kris says:

    I love that you mentioned Lions of Al-Rassan. Guy Gavriel Kay has been a favorite author of mine (if not the favorite) since I discovered Tigana about 18 years ago or so. I have reread all his novels multiple times, save for Under Heaven which is sitting on my shelf teasing me even now. I haven’t had the time lately to do it justice, even my 1st read was chopped up more than I prefer.

    As for why I reread, Robert’s answer gives all my reasons, from rereading to capture details missed on the 1st time through the book to the feeling of familiarity with the ones read over and over. I don’t intentionally abuse my books but the ones I love best look the most ragged. :)

  14. 14
    twostatesystem says:

    I have read nearly every book I own more than once. I don’t tend to buy/keep things I read only once. I love rereading because it’s like the old song, Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold. Reading books I’ve read before is like visiting with old friends.

    That said, I have a few books I read over and over and over and reach for in times of stress or exhaustion: Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Telling and The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven; Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series; Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors and Murder Must Advertise; Homer’s Iliad; and the original Thomas the Tank Engine books.

  15. 15
    Mandolin says:

    GGK is pretty damn amazing.

    (I discovered recently that I’m on an email list that he is also on, and this has made me gibber slightly with omg.)

  16. 16
    RedSonja says:

    Watership Down, The Jungle Book, and Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown are my favorites to re-read, but certainly not the only ones. And I, like many others, have found that many adolescent favorites don’t hold up well to my more adult perspective. (Dragonriders of Pern, I’m looking at you!)

  17. 17
    Valentine says:

    I am a devoted re-reader. Each book is an entire world to me – and my favourites are ones that I cannot wait to step into again and again. All time favourite is Tabitha King’s One on One – must have re-read that 100s of times since I was 13. Love strong vivid characters – Tanya Huff’s Valor series is a recent sci-fi standout; I am also a Robert Jordan, wheel of time fan. (i think this a guilty pleasure). I also am recently into zombie fiction – Feed and World War Z (both of which have been re-read to pieces…good zombie fic is hard to find).

  18. 18
    allburningup says:

    The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman